Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 512-519)


29 OCTOBER 2008

  Q512 Chairman: Minister, now that people have settled down, may I welcome you to this sitting of the Committee. We are very pleased to see you. It is your first time in front of us and, as I understand it, your first time in front of a Select Committee.

  Baroness Morgan: Absolutely, yes.

  Chairman: I hope that you will find it an enjoyable experience.

  Baroness Morgan: I am sure that I will.

  Q513 Chairman: As you know, this is the final sitting of what has been a long and thorough inquiry into looked-after children. After this meeting, we shall begin writing our report so this final sitting is very important to us. We want to give you a chance to say something about looked-after children or your brief if you want to, otherwise you have the option to go straight into questions.

  Baroness Morgan: I should be delighted if I started by saying a few words, but I wish first to thank you for inviting me to give evidence.[1] You have been doing an enormous amount of work with the inquiry and, for me coming into the role, it is incredibly valuable to know the insights of the Select Committee at this stage. I also value the opportunity to make it clear at the outset that the Government's ambition for all children to have a safe, happy and loving childhood is very strong. We want to see children able to grow up to achieve their full potential. While our ambition is for all children, we feel it most keenly for those young people who are in the care of the state itself. We feel that they look to us as their parents who have, for whatever reason, been unable to fulfil their parental role. Everyone involved in running the care system from social workers to Ministers share the enormous responsibility of filling the vacuum in the lives of children whose parents have not been able to fulfil that role. Central to our Care Matters agenda—which you have been looking at closely—is the desire to give looked-after children greater stability and to take their wishes into account when decisions affecting them are made. I see that as a very high priority. Over the next year, we shall continue to put Care Matters into practice through a host of regulations, statutory guidance and the inspection and performance frameworks for local authorities and other providers. The Children and Young Persons Bill is, I believe, the appropriate legislative framework for driving this change, but we will also work closely with local partners and use pilot schemes across the country to ensure that good policy turns into good practice. We will report to Parliament through the ministerial stocktake. That will be on an annual basis and is an important part of the whole picture. We recognise that although there are some good local authorities and practices that lead to improved life chances for children in care, there is inconsistency across the system. I am determined that we should address those areas of weakness so that in future, all provision is at the level of the very best. Earlier this year we announced an investment of more than £70 million over the next three years to improve the quality of the social care work force. We are developing a longer-term strategy, bringing together experts from across the professions to create a comprehensive and joined-up children's work force for the future. That was highlighted in the Children's Plan. It is clear from work already done that there is no quick fix solution to improving the lives of children in care. It requires a combination of legislative action, regulation, financial investment and the personal commitment of thousands of professionals and carers. It means ensuring that looked-after children get better parenting from everyone in the system. As a new Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, I look forward to playing my role in what is a long-term, difficult but vitally important area of work. I look forward to working with the Committee, and I hope to be as helpful as possible to your work. I look forward to seeing your report and responding positively to the work that you have done.

  Q514 Chairman: Thank you. That was most welcome. We have looked at this area and it is, as you said, extremely complex. We do not think for a moment that there is any quick fix. However, is there a level of accountability? It is frustrating that there is no real level of accountability, other than ministerial accountability which, with ministerial churn, changes relatively often. I hope that you will be with us for a long time, but you know how these things work—Ministers often move. We have taken evidence and gone round the country looking at the care system. Sometimes there is a refreshing innovation such as the virtual school, where a head teacher looks after all children in care in the local authority area. There are signs of accountability—there are people responsible for some dimension of every child in care in an area—but nationally, is there a way to draw that together? Could there not be a responsibility that was longer running and more stable than the churn of the ministerial office?

  Baroness Morgan: Ministers may come and go, but the office and accountability remain. Through the creation of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, we have created an important and integrated locus for all issues and concerns for children. That is an important starting point, and it has been much strengthened by the work of the Children and Young Persons Bill. The use of the new national indicator set, an empowered Ofsted process and statutory guidance and regulation will create a legal framework that will create transparency at a local level about how services perform. The work in our Department will be drawn together through the process of a ministerial stocktake. That will be an annual event, and the first will take place next September. I will lead it with Ministers from the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government. In effect, we will draw this framework into an event where we will hear from young people, professionals and our partners in local government. We will look at the progress of the pilots and the policy and practice agenda across the board. We will report to Parliament annually so that it can see how effectively we are moving forward this complex agenda.

  Q515 Chairman: We would not underrate for a moment the importance of ministerial accountability. Could you describe the reporting lines that lead to you and how you draw such matters together? How does the system work when people say that there is a problem or challenge in the health needs of children in care? We see reports that this matter is patchy with a minimal level of care in some authorities. How do the reporting lines in health compare with those in education or criminal justice? When you march into your office, who is sitting there that you can tell to do something or ask a question of such as, "What's this about all responsibility for children in care going as soon as they are in the criminal justice system?" When there is no access to child psychologists or clinical psychologists for children in care, who can you go to and say, "Look, find out for me what is happening in the health sector."?

  Baroness Morgan: One of the things that I would do—the first, really—is ask our director general for children's services to provide me with a full briefing on what the policy position should be. I would not shy away from picking up the phone and talk to fellow Ministers in the Department of Health about what the position is. An important step we have taken is to establish a programme board in the Department to monitor the progress of the entire policy area of looked-after children. That will have independent members. We do not have problems with looking into one-off questions or concerns. The question is how we can drive forward in systematic way an agenda that results in palpable improvements in services for looked-after children locally. There is an enormous policy agenda. I pay tribute to my predecessors Kevin Brennan and Beverley Hughes, who took forward Care Matters, the Green Paper, the White Paper and the Bill. The framework is there, but the issue is driving forward that change and providing the right framework for local authorities in guidance and regulations. The whole library of guidance and regulations is being reviewed in the light of Care Matters and its implementation, which has been developed in strong partnership with professionals. We have processes for dealing with ad hoc issues, but the challenge is creating momentum so that change is experienced locally in service provision.

  Chairman: Minister, thank you. We will come back to ad hockery later.

  Q516 Mr Timpson: Everyone on the Committee applauds the ambitious goals of Care Matters and, as you have said this morning, the desire to drive forward that agenda in a systematic way, but what has also become apparent is that there are some gaps and deficiencies in what is being proposed through Care Matters. One of those is the recruitment of foster carers. We know that there is still a dearth of foster carers: there is a shortfall of about 8,000. It is a perennial problem, which has not been addressed. Relatively little is said in Care Matters about how the Government can assist in trying to recruit good foster carers nationwide. Given that more than 70% of children in care are in foster care placements, why does Care Matters not address that problem more thoroughly? What can you, as the Minister, do about that to try to ensure that there are enough good placements for children who need foster care?

  Baroness Morgan: You are absolutely right to draw attention to the need to promote greater uptake of foster caring, although I am not sure that I would agree that there is not enough evidence on foster caring in Care Matters. I do not think that we would say that there are anything like enough foster carers. We as a Government do our bit to work with local authorities to help them to recruit foster carers and to provide advice and support. Part of that is making sure that the role of foster carer is properly supported, and that foster carers have a clear idea of what their role is and what they have to offer. There needs to be clear agreement between providers and foster carers about what is expected of them. We have been working with the Fostering Network to help with the development of more materials for local authorities to use to promote fostering. The Fostering Network has produced campaign materials that are being distributed to local authorities to help them with their local recruiting campaigns. It has played a leading role in running, for example, a campaign encouraging people to recognise the qualities they have, which might help them to see themselves as potential foster carers. You are right that more needs to be done to encourage more people to come forward into foster caring, but I also think that we as a Government have a role to play in ensuring that where people do go into fostering, they understand what their role is and that they can play a full part in working with the child's school, attending parents' evenings and so on. There needs to be clarity about their role. There is an awful lot more to do.

  Q517 Mr Timpson: Is not one reason why we still have this shortage the wide variation in support to foster carers, both in type and quality, throughout England? For instance, it is estimated that 40% of foster carers do not receive any payment over and above the national minimum allowance, so is it realistic for us to expect there to be an increase in the number of people interested in becoming foster carers when there is no national standardisation of the value of their role or of their pay and conditions and the support they receive?

  Baroness Morgan: We recognise that there is an extremely diverse population of foster carers. The arrangements for payments are extremely diverse, and we recognise that that is in part because there is a wide range of training needs and of needs of the child being placed. We recognise that it is important for local authorities and providers to have flexibility to meet those needs in the best possible way for the child. I do not want in any way to detract from the incredibly important role that foster carers play, and we must recognise it. We have the national minimum allowance, to which you have already referred. It is important for ensuring that no foster carers are out of pocket because of the costs of caring for a child. It is a delicate balance to strike. We need more foster carers. We need local authorities and providers to be able to take account of the incredibly diverse calls on foster carers, and we need that to be appropriate.

  Q518 Mr Timpson: The other aspect is the need to hold on to foster carers when we have them and ensure that we do not lose them, because they have experience of the system. The Committee has already heard evidence about the role foster carers play and the responsibility they are entrusted with. Many of those who gave evidence felt that delegating more day-to-day responsibilities for looking after the children to the foster carers would enhance both their role and, more importantly, the experience of the children they care for. We heard many examples of children being able to have their hair cut or being able to have overnight stays. Do the Government intend, in trying to overcome the risk-averse culture, to try to deal with local authorities so that foster carers are allowed more responsibility and are more trusted in their role, which after all is highly professional?

  Baroness Morgan: You have touched on a very important point about fostering and allowed me the opportunity to say something that I think is really important: it is essential that foster carers are clear about what is and is not delegated to them and what their roles and responsibilities are. That is very important for a foster carer. Knowing what their role is and how they can engage with a school or the health services will make the role much more fulfilling and allow them to make the most of it in the interests of the child. That is why we will be looking at amending the fostering service regulations to ensure that there is a review of the foster placement agreement at least annually, or sooner if there is a substantive change in the circumstances of the placement. I think that regular reviewing of the placement agreement will help foster carers to be absolutely clear about their role and responsibilities, which is the right thing for us to do.

  Q519 Mr Stuart: May I take you to the subject of leaving care? We have heard that in some local authorities it is becoming more common for children of 16 and 17 to leave care. Do you think that there is a need for stricter follow-up and concrete standards to ensure that local authorities do not shy away from their responsibilities when young people reach 16?

  Baroness Morgan: We need to be absolutely clear that the presumption should be that young people aged 16 or 17 should stay in the care system, in a residential placement or in foster care, until they are 18, unless there is a special and particular reason for them not to do so. We are particularly concerned about this issue, and, as you know, we are running a number of pilots looking into people leaving care. We are aiming to stop the poor practice—as we see it—in some areas of allowing young people to leave care without understanding the full implications of what it will mean for them if they are placed in an inappropriate setting without support.

1   See DCSF written evidence published in the First Report from the Children, Schools and Families Committee, Session 2007-08, Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords], HC 359, Ev 1. Back

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